THE ARISTOCRACY OF TALENT

An interesting book review sent to me with a brief comment by a former classmate (NOT ‘old  classmate’) now living in Switzerland… Is he right?

Some years ago a cousin in Derry told us a thug from up the street went into their corner shop, picked up a sandwich and walked out, eating it. When the lady owner protested she was told to “F- off”. They said most people who live where we grew up do not go out after dark, for fear.

A friend/former colleague, grew up in St Helens, Lancs, Rugby League country, father a coal-miner, bright, got her doctorate in Physics in Oxford Uni, saw that the working class had been robbed of its brains by the 11+; the Labour Party had no good leaders, has lost is way, doesn’t know what to do.  It’s the same in Derry: bright ones have moved out the Culmore Road and so on, are not part of what they grew up in. Seems this has always been going on  (sigh).

THE ARISTOCRACY OF TALENT

How meritocracy made the modern world
496pp. Allen Lane. £25.

Adrian Wooldridge

It is the oldest yet the latest thing. At the dawn of recorded political thought, meritocracy surfaces, hot and strong, in Plato’s Republic:

The eye of the ruler must not be pitiful towards his child because he has to descend in the scale and become a husbandman or an artisan, just as there may be sons of artisans who having an admixture of gold or silver in them are raised to honour, and become Guardians or auxiliaries. For an oracle says that when a man of brass or iron guards the State, it will be destroyed. [Translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1888]

Plato adds, almost playfully, “such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?”

Adrian Wooldridge’s extraordinary and irresistible history of meritocracy, The Aristocracy of Talent, describes the repeated efforts over the centuries to persuade peoples all over the world to accept the principle and compel society to organize itself on lines where merit alone, not bloodlines or bank balances, decides who rules and gets top dollar. There seems to be no appreciable difference between the warning of Plato’s oracle and the foreboding of Sir Robert Morant, the great mandarin who masterminded the 1902 Education Act: “the more we develop our society on democratic lines, without this scrupulous safeguarding of the ‘guidance of brains’ in each and every sphere of national life, the more surely will the democratic State be beaten, in the long run, in the international struggle for existence”.

Nowhere was each generation more rigorously quality-sifted than in the China of the Ming dynasty (and for centuries earlier and later). The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (cited by Wooldridge) describes the endless examination halls that dotted the country: half palaces, half prisons, monuments to competition, containing thousands of cells for the examinees and surrounded by high walls to prevent them from communicating with the outside world, or with each other. Guards searched the candidates, professional scribes copied their scripts to prevent the examiners recognizing anyone’s handwriting, and the candidates were given numbers to disguise their identities. The system aroused abiding resentment. Classics of Chinese literature were devoted to satirizing its absurdities. Wooldridge tells us that the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), which cost more than 20 million lives, was largely provoked by frustrations with the civil service exam and led by young men whose career hopes had been destroyed by failing it – just as the memoirs of modern French meritocrats are filled with tales of the horrors of the “Bac”. The system in China was abolished by imperial edict in 1905, only to surface again in modern China. These days, the extra precaution against cheating is that the authorities fly drones over the exam hall to check for signals from smartphones.

Wooldridge concedes that such frenetically competitive systems do have their downsides. He admits that Plato’s vision is “austere” – a rather mild epithet, I think.

In France, the normaliens and énarques who have ruled the country since the war, for all the economic achievements of the Trente Glorieuses, have in the crunch repeatedly shown themselves deaf to popular unrest and awkward in coping with it. The rise of the gilets jaunes is just the most recent example. Besides, societies can make impressive progress without setting up formal competitive systems. In what Wooldridge calls “sponsored social mobility”, from the Middle Ages onwards, if not before, monarchs and bishops talent-spotted likely lads from modest backgrounds, educated them in their households and raised them to positions of great power: for example, Thomas Becket, Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell – the sticky ends to which so many of them came constituting a drastic sort of performance review. (In the eighteenth century, the more energetic Habsburg emperors such as Maria-Theresa actually carried out six-monthly performance reviews on their civil servants.) Samuel Pepys, that most dynamic of public servants, was well aware of how the system worked. Wooldridge usefully quotes him: “how little merit does prevail in the world, but only favour – and that for myself, chance without merit brought me in, and that diligence only keeps me so”.

The trouble is that the cognitive elites soon begin feathering their own nests and marking their own homework. Each new meritocracy has a way of hardening into a new aristocracy. Wooldridge reminds us that England’s most famous schools were founded to give poor scholars a leg up – not just Eton, Harrow and Winchester but the great grammar schools of Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth. But having been colonized by the upper-middle classes and plutocrats, these schools are today the destination of choice for the new Asian elites. As I am writing this, in today’s Times I see Eton College advertising the fact that no less than half the King’s Scholarships this year have been awarded to Chinese boys educated at expensive English prep schools.

In the US today, elite colleges have more students from the top 1 per cent than from the whole of the bottom 60 per cent; at Harvard, the average parental income is, Wooldridge tells us, $450,000 per year. Nor are the new elites content to be only famous for being rich. In a parody of Plato’s Guardians, Davos Man now presents himself as a sage. Bill Gates issues a recommended summer reading list each year. And such grandstanding provides much scope for hypocrisy. At Google’s annual “camp” to discuss climate change in 2019, the guests needed 114 private planes plus a fleet of superyachts to get them there on schedule.

These pretensions to high culture do not exclude corruption on a mind-boggling scale, not least in the enormous backhanders laid out to winkle your child into a top-flight school. This new inequality is reinforced and perpetuated by “assortative mating”, in which alpha males marry alpha females, as predicted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. The proportion of men with university degrees who married women with degrees nearly doubled in the US between 1960 and 2005. More cruel still, the alphas tend to stay married, while the miseries of divorce are mostly reserved for the underclass, if they get around to marrying at all. In the US, only 10 per cent of women with degrees are single mothers, as opposed to 60 per cent of women with high-school education only. Divorce among college-educated women is 30 per cent down on twenty years ago, while marriage break-ups continue to climb among women who dropped out of high school. Worst of all, Wooldridge muses, the beneficiaries of this new nepotism “are losing the sense of guilt that used to be the saving grace of their predecessors”. It is hard to know which is the more repellent slogan: “because you’ve earned it” or “because you’re worth it”. One wonders whether modern societies, in both the East and West, are currently in danger of experiencing the same social sclerosis as paralysed medieval Venice, where the social mobility that had made La Serenissima great gradually ground to a halt as the elites rigged the system in favour of their children, so that by 1315 the authorities published a book called Il Libro d’Oro, a social register intended to freeze the elite for ever – a moment hauntingly dubbed la serrata (“the closure”).

Wooldridge is the political editor of the Economist and author of its “Bagehot” column. He is indeed a worthy successor to Walter Bagehot and to Bagehot’s father-in-law James Wilson, who founded the magazine and also devised India’s first income tax. The Aristocracy of Talent is unfailingly entertaining, effortlessly drawing on a wealth of anecdote and statistics. Wooldridge quotes liberally from the most scorching critiques of meritocracy: from Walter Lippmann’s indictment of IQ tests in the 1920s to Michael Young’s incomparable satire, The Rise of Meritocracy (1958), in which the word itself makes its debut, much like “Whig” and “Tory” first being deployed as pejoratives. He sets out Young’s exploration of what a fully realized meritocracy would mean for the losers, though he does not quote what seems to me the most telling passage:

As for the lower classes, their situation is different too. Today all persons, however humble, know they have had every chance. They are tested again and again … if they have been labeled “dunce” repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend … Are they not bound to recognize that they have an inferior status – not as in the past because they have been denied opportunity; but because they are inferior? For the first time in human history the inferior man has no buttress for his self-regard.

Wooldridge does remind us that Young’s book ends with a populist revolt against the elites – a revolt led by a breakaway faction of the elite, among them graduates of Balliol College (the alma mater of Boris Johnson). As the author notes, the only things Young got wrong was that this uprising has taken place a decade earlier than he prophesied and has been led by firebrands of the new right rather than the old left.

Wooldridge admits that meritocrats can be not only intolerably smug and conceited but also blind to the practical disadvantages of their wheezes – nowhere more so than in the case of the golden generation of the McNamaras and Bundys who brought us the Vietnam War and were so excoriated in David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972). There are occasions, though, where the author lets off the cocksure meritocrats too lightly. He praises Thomas Babington Macaulay and Macaulay’s brother-in-law Charles Trevelyan for introducing meritocracy to the civil service in India and Britain, without mentioning Trevelyan’s wilful negligence during the Great Famine, during which his almost religious belief in the free market condemned millions of Irishmen to starvation or emigration. Wooldridge does, however, mention Macaulay’s notorious “Minute” of 1835, which proposed to educate an elite that would be “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” – surely the apogee of imperial arrogance. And he seems unduly admiring, too, of the meritocratic revolutions of Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte. The carrière ouverte aux talents is a splendid principle but the actual legacies of all this social mobilizing were millions of dead across Europe and a political instability so profound that it could end only in the restoration of a revamped ancien régime.

Throughout, Wooldridge never loses faith in the principle of meritocracy as the key driver of modernity – “driver” is typical merito jargon, taking it for granted that society stands in constant need of a push. He begins by asking “is there a better system for organizing the world?” And he ends, nearly 400 pages later, by reasserting that “the best way forward lies in the meritocratic idea”. The answer, he insists, is not more meritocracy but wiser meritocracy. The trouble is that previous meritocratic revolutions didn’t go far enough.

So what is all this to mean in practice? Wooldridge recommends a revival of IQ testing as well as powers for the existing school academies to select their pupils at the age of eleven, plus free university education for “national merit scholars”, “hidden Einsteins” who are to be recruited from poorer neighbourhoods. Those who don’t make it will be able to opt for upscaled vocational education – that is to enjoy a new parity of esteem by means that are not entirely clear to me. He also wants to see a thoroughgoing reform of politics designed to keep the hot breath of the masses from the collars of their betters: “a bit less democracy is better democracy”. Political parties should wrest power back from their members. Governments should avoid any further referendums and strangle direct democracy wherever it threatens to impede the rule of the meritocrats.

But isn’t all this likely to inflame the resentment of the losers even further? Besides, there are enough catastrophic blunders on the record of the mandarins to suggest that, however brilliant they may be, it is not wise to leave them in control of the levers unattended by checks and balances, not least those provided by public opinion. On the basis of Wooldridge’s marvellous sottisier, one could just as well argue the other way: that it was the democratic revolution that never went far enough; that power and revenue should be returned to elected authorities at the most local level; that schemes for reforming institutions, or for giant infrastructure projects of the sort that obsess Boris Johnson, should be subjected to close public scrutiny by the people who are going to have to live with them.

At the very least, we need to reflect on the complexity of political action. Meritocracy is an admirable principle but it is not the only game in town. Businesses thrive on competition but they also depend on intricate networks of co-operation. Societies flourish not just on capitalism’s famous waves of creative destruction but also on the steadiness provided by the rule of law and by institutions that strengthen the sense of community. These other values are not “alternative”, as Wooldridge calls them, but complementary and intertwined. Unless you want a ruthless rat race, equality of opportunity cannot rule on its own without going hand-in-hand with other sorts of equality, of access to justice, to healthcare and education, social arrangements designed to suit us all as we are, not merely as vehicles to speed the fortunate few to their proper destination. Wooldridge quotes Donald Trump’s boast, “I love the poorly educated”, which is creepy and cynical, especially coming from someone who regularly denounces those who disagree with him as “losers”. All the same, the thought does offer something of a challenge to the self-absorption of the meritocrats. If you can’t love the losers, why should they love you?

The Aristocracy of Talent is a serious treat from first to last. Not the least of its pleasures are the possibilities of disagreement that it provokes.

Ferdinand Mount is the author of Mind the Gap: The new class divide in Britain, 2010 (revised edition)

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